Posts Tagged ‘hadrian’

The Pantheon: the emergence of modern religious practice?

May 29, 2010

Once you get over the size of the Colosseum, it loses a large part of its appeal. It’s something I enjoy more from the outside than in, if I’m being honest (although the current exhibition on gladiators is pretty good). The Forum, on the other hand, is an incredible place to visit, but you only get real satisfaction if you know a lot about it already. To anybody else, it takes an awful lot of imagination to appreciate the place after both time and archaeology have wreaked their havoc. The Pantheon, however, is almost as good as it ever was. 500 years ago, Michelangelo attributed its splendour to “disegno angelico e non umano” (angelic and not human design) and very little’s changed since then.

Originally built by Augustus’ right hand man Agrippa, the Pantheon was destroyed by lightning in the reign of Trajan. These days, Hadrian is usually given credit for the building, although his decision to recreate the original inscription coupled with Cassius Dio’s claim that it had been built by Agrippa* might suggest that the ancients focussed less on the building as its function. There have been some recent claims that Trajan might have been responsible for the start of construction after the discovery of some early date stamps on some of the bricks used in the building. However, it’s hardly impossible that these bricks had sat waiting to be used in a builder’s yard, and the vast majority of stamped bricks are from Hadrian’s reign. Furthermore, the writers of later histories (such as the Historia Augusta) probably had access to the Emperor’s now sadly lost autobiography, and as they ascribe the building to him, I’m sticking with Hadrian.

Originally, the building would have looked pretty traditional from the outside to your average Roman schmo. High Podium, facade orientation, colonnaded porch ya da ya da ya da. However, everything changed the moment you walked through the giant bronze doors. Anybody standing in Piazza San Pietro can’t make out the famous dome of the Church; the angles in play mean that the facade blocks it off entirely until you walk down Via Risorgimento. Something similar happened with the Pantheon, although there was no Via Risorgimento equivalent. The ‘Piazza’ it was built in was much smaller that the modern day Piazza Rotonda, and the complex which the Temple was a part of was designed to conceal the revolutionary shape from view. Not until you entered would you realize the dome was there.

So we’re inside now. Our Roman has entered the Temple. He’s clocked the multi-coloured floor and recognizes the imperial message of the materials used to build it. With material from Egypt (North West Africa), Carthage (North East), Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and (we think) Gaul, that’s material from literally every corner of the Roman Empire. He’s noticed the oculus (the big hole in the roof), and the circle of sunlight streaming through it (which is moving around the room as the day progresses). If he’s a vaguely astute chap, he’ll immediately get the connection with Hadrian; this Emperor was famous for his attention to the Provinces and spent the majority of his rule visiting them all in person. At the same time, he’d have been giving some thought to the shape of the place. Generally, Roman temples were not round (although there were exceptions) but ever since their Etruscan roots, the Romans had often built circular tombs (check out the Mausoleum of Augustus for an example). By adding this element of death to the godliness of a temple, what emerges at the other side of the equation is the imperial cult. The only entities who would both die and be worshipped as gods were the emperors themselves. The Pantheon may well be a temple to “all the gods” as its Greek name suggests, but it seems that it’s to some of the newer ones in particular.

There’s something strange going on, however. The modern idea of a congregation meeting inside a religious building to pray together etcetera was incongruous in traditional Roman religion. The rites would happen outside the temple; inside was a private ‘house’ for the god worshipped there in which only his or her priests were allowed in. Yet obviously, Hadrian did not go to all this effort for a couple of priests. Turning to Cassius Dio again, there is a mention of the Senate meeting in the Pantheon, but certainly not on a regular basis and even this doesn’t seem enough. I would suggest that the Pantheon was designed to be seen by the rank and file Roman as well, and if so the building marks a transition from ancient to modern religious practice.

And if none of that excites you, the Queen Marherita buried in there is the woman the pizza was named after. The Pantheon: something for everybody.

*This is usually explained away as a mistaken attribution. However, Cassius Dio tells us that a fire destroyed the original Pantheon in 80 AD, so he’s well aware that Agrippa hadn’t built the version he knew.


The beards of Emperors

February 2, 2010

Column inches across the world have been devoted to the ongoing question of Berlusconi’s hair transplant, and now that Bill Gates has weighed in on the issue (, fresh life might have been given to the farce.

The exasperated Silvio must look back to the glory days of imperial Rome wistfully; Not only was public prosecution of an Emperor absolutely impossible, not only was autocratic rule given for life, but the imperial hairstyle was spared the ridicule poured on the modern day equivalent.  In fact, such was the respect accorded to the imperial do that historians and archaeologists today are able to date statues based on which imperial figure’s hairstyle is being copied. Elongated bun on a female bust, hair drawn down on both sides of the head? Ah, that’ll be an attempt to emulate Septimius Severus’ wife, Julia Domna. Must be, ooh… end of the second century AD then.

However, lest Silvio envy his forerunners too much, it should be pointed out that there were limits. Julian the Apostate was Constantine the Great’s nephew, but instead of following the family trend of slipping towards Christianity, he developed a secret neo-platonic pagan zeal under the guidance of his tutor. Fully aware of the semiotics of beard growth, Julian revealed his secret religion upon his ascension to the throne and unleashed his newly unfettered whiskers on the world. In his short two year rule, the beard would grow into such a source of controversy that when the Emperor wrote a satire defending his controversially austere lifestyle, it was his beard which he named it after.

I’m going to go a bit off topic now, but this is probably the only post I’m ever going to write about imperial beards, so I quickly want to weigh in on the most famous of them all: Hadrian’s. Firstly, if anybody can tell me where the idea that it was grown to cover warts and scars originates from, I’d be extremely grateful. I often see it written, but it just doesn’t seem to ring true. Secondly, the idea that the beard was grown out of philhellenism is an old one, but I’ve seen it rejected by people recently. Instead, they argue that as an ex-military man, Hadrian got into the habit of not shaving whilst on camp. However, I can’t think of any other ex-Emperor with a military past (Trajan, Vespasian, etc) who had kept a beard as top dog, and the only bearded representation of an Emperor earlier than the man in question that springs to mind is a statue of the decidedly unmilitaristic Nero.  In fact, the original theory still holds plenty of water; Hadrian had lived in Athens before becoming Emperor (even becoming archon, or chief magistrate), and he maintained his ties to the city throughout his reign. His interests proudly displayed his love of all things Greek: architecture, poetry, philosophy and, of course, beards.

*If anyone’s interested, the Misopogon or ‘Beard hater’ is available here:

Pasta outside Castello San Angelo

November 8, 2009

The Barilla pasta magnets on currently displayed proudly have prompted this week’s post.  They’re a new addition to our kitchen after we were given them during the celebrations of international pasta day last Sunday.  I imagine that for anybody else reading this, your own celebrations were fairly low-key, but for those of us in Rome, Milan and Naples, Barilla saw to it that we were fed bowl upon bowl of free pasta.

In Rome, the celebrations were held in the Giardinni San Angelo next to Castello San Angelo.  To look at this castle, you’d struggle to find any suggestion of the work of ancient Romans, and as far as I know, you’d eventually have to give up on the fruitless quest; there are no signs at all.  However, originally the castle was built as the tomb of Hadrian.  His statue still stands in the gardens and his name is given to the nearby piazza Adriana, but the building itself has been drastically altered.

The original building was designed by the Emperor himself who had always held a considerable interest in architecture.  It was a grand, white marble structure, and if the Pantheon is any guide (another project the Emperor was involved in) it would no doubt have been a fabulous building. It was known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian until the sixth century, but before we look at why the name was changed, it’s time for some background.

After the Roman Empire in the west had fallen, Rome had become something of a ghost town.  The papacy continued to operate from there, but otherwise the city’s halcyon days of political and cultural significance were behind it.  Hobbes described the papacy of the time as “the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave.”  Pope Gregory I began to change all of that, however, and under his guidance, the city was successfully portrayed as a destination for pilgrimage.  With the tourist trade dollar flooding in, Gregory began to claw back the glories of old Rome.

However, none of this rejuvenation could happen until the plague that was coursing through Rome had ended. That supposedly happened after Gregory saw a vision of St Michael above the Mausoleum and the name was changed accordingly.  After that, pope after pope added to and reinforced the building to make it the Vatican’s defensive stronghold.  During the 1527 sack of Rome, one pope remained holed up in there for months.  It was this period that saw the Castle become the building we recognise today.  (And incidentally, it was also in this period that Hadrian’s remains were removed elsewhere and later destroyed in a fire).

As we sat next to the castle munching on our trofie al pesto, I noticed an inscription explaining that the park we were sitting in had been created by another figure from Italian history, namely Mussolini.  Whilst you see his building work etc on a daily basis over here, it came as a surprise to see something carved in stone explicitly naming him as responsible for the Gardens.  Rather than rewriting history, however, the inscription was left as it was; as yet one more layer of history serving as a backdrop to contemporary Rome and all of its pasta-based events.